A Quiet Day with Chores and Books

After taking the cooking show on the road yesterday, today was an at home day.  I’ve been catching up on chores (regrettable, isn’t it, how laundry and dust bunnies don’t take care of themselves?) and reading the latest slew of cookbooks checked out of the library.  I must report: a pretty good selection plucked from the shelves.

First up is Joan Nathan’s Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: A Search for Jewish Cooking in France.  Nathan, cookbook author, food historian, and Jewish cooking expert has compiled a book that is at once intensely intimate and broadly historical.

The book’s endpapers immediately drew me in.

It felt like finding a treasure trove of handwritten family recipes in the attic – if my family happened to be French by way of North Africa, and my attic in Paris.  Or Alsace.  Or the Loire Valley.

Recipes for sacred and secular breads, kugels and other eggy dishes, a variety of couscous preparations, and desserts for holidays and non-holidays alike are studded with photographs, bits of history, and tales of individuals bringing the foods of their culture with them into France and of France leaving its stamp on those favorite dishes.

This book is for anyone who loves food, France, European and/or Jewish history, biography and memoir, or all of the above.  My only dilemma is which kugel to make first?  Or maybe I should make one of the breads instead?  Hmmmm.

Falling Off the Bone by Jean Anderson caught my eye on one particularly cold morning because it is in such weather that we here at home crave something rich, long-braised, complexly flavored, soul satisfying and, well, falling off the bone for dinner.

Slow cooked, fork tender meat satisfies the basic, primal needs of nourishment and comfort in us carnivores.  As much as I love my vegetables (and believe me, on most evenings I could eat an entire head of roasted garlicky broccoli and nothing else and be quite happy) stewed meat served up on something as rib sticking as a puddle of polenta is one of the few meals that cuts the mustard on a frigid and pitch black New England night.

Anderson discusses the less-tender cuts of meat – whether pork or beef or veal or lamb – that require these long, slow, and careful cooking methods to be edible.  It’s refreshing to pick up a book that includes recipes for oxtail and trotters and blade chops and veal shanks.

Many of the cuts of meat cooked up in these recipes used to be dirt cheap.  Certainly nothing’s cheap any more, but as our palates began to demand more costly, tender pieces of meats, these tougher cuts began a slide into the unfamiliar.  To keep these from being the exclusive property of trendy nose-to-tail restaurants, it’s good to know how to cook them, and Anderson’s book will help you do that.

Who among my Massachusetts readers remembers the state sales tax-free shopping holiday back in December?  Who remembers the holiday’s kissing cousin, Cyber Monday, the day when those of us averse to entering the weekend madness of shopping malls could do the same tax-free shopping from the comfort of our computer desk chairs?  If you do, you’ll love this story.

I needed some way to transport soup to a potluck holiday dinner.  I needed, I decided, a slow cooker (known to some by the trademark Crockpot).  On Cyber Monday, I saved big on one – it was heavily discounted for the cyber sale PLUS I wouldn’t pay sales tax.  $24.99 and three months later, I now have a slow cooker taking up space in a cupboard until the next time I need to bring soup to a buffet.

Neither single use nor dust collecting makes sense to me, so I decided to look into slow cooker cookbooks in order to use my new-ish piece of kitchen equipment.  Lucky for me, the unnaturally detail-oriented folks at America’s Test Kitchen have just released the definitive book on the subject, Slow Cooker Revolution.

Christopher Kimball and his troops test the heck out of recipes, and they don’t stop until they have an ultimate version of a dish.  Scattered throughout the book are highlighted discussions of testing all kinds of ingredients and techniques, and recommendations for what will and will not work.

Each recipe in the collection begins with a summary of the research, a “Why This Recipe Works” explanation.  Knowing the thoroughness of the ATK team from the TV show and Cook’s Illustrated magazine, this book must be the last word on slow cooking.

If you are looking for recipes that advise placing a little bit of chopped this and that, some liquid or other, seasonings, and a hunk of protein into the slow cooker before you leave for work so that you may come home at 6 or so to a fully cooked, tasty meal, this isn’t your book.  Most of the recipes require some advance or finish work on ingredients outside of the slow cooker (searing, par-cooking, baking in the oven), maybe as much work as braising a pot roast conventionally, for example.  The only difference is that you can do it early and allow the meal to cook over a longer stretch of time.  I didn’t mind the work, but others more pressed for time might.

I am absolutely smitten with this next book.  So much so that I broke my moratorium on cookbook buying.  Reader, after checking it out of the library, I purchased this: In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite.

Author Melissa Clark writes the column A Good Appetite for the New York Times food section.  The stories leading into the recipes are delightful; the recipes – some adapted from favorite restaurants, some from family, some from friends, some of her own devising – are too.  No matter the source, each is carefully collected here for the curious home cook.

A cookbook containing recipes written with such enthusiasm for food, even for the humblest broccoli, will make a proud addition to any cookbook shelf.

I have a feeling I’ll be in the kitchen with In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite for a good long stretch.  I hope the slow cooker doesn’t mind.

©2011  Jane A. Ward